Hassan Whiteside choked back tears after a game that might have changed his life forever.
The center’s career-best 23-point, 16-rebound performance for the Heat in its 104-90 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers solidified Whiteside on Sunday as an important piece of this transitioning Heat team, but it also signaled Whiteside’s official return to the NBA. This time, he plans on sticking around.
Clippers All-Star Blake Griffin called Whiteside the difference in the game and, just maybe, Whiteside will be the difference in the Heat’s season as well.
Whiteside had 12 points and 10 rebounds off the bench in the first half and then started the third quarter in place of Chris Andersen.
When it was all over, and the 25-year-old 7-footer had provided the intensity in the third quarter that the Heat has missed so many times this season.
He joined Chris Gatling, Kevin Willis, Alonzo Mourning and Michael Beasley as the only Heat players in franchise history to record at least 20 points and 15 rebounds off the bench.
“He changed shots down low on defense, got us offensive rebounds, put-backs, dunks, layups, he really did a great job controlling the paint,” Heat center Chris Bosh said.
Whiteside was playing basketball in Tripoli, Lebanon, this time last year and after that he returned to China for a second time to play in its second-division league.
On Saturday, he was lauded as a game-changer by some of the best game-changers in the league. The journey from being drafted by Sacramento in 2010 to now has been a long one.
So, for a few seconds, the tough-guy façade melted after the game, and in a quiet moment in the locker room with the Miami Herald, Whiteside was not a 7-foot basketball monster, but a vulnerable 20-something who only a few months ago thought his dream of playing in the NBA had passed.
The Heat (16-21) signed Whiteside in November when no one else would even give him a tryout. It was out of necessity that the Heat put Whiteside on the roster and since then he has been working to make sure he doesn’t squander his second chance.
Whiteside has always had the skills and the size, but now a new perspective and maybe a more focused work ethic are helping to put everything together.
“It’s different because I got a coach who will play me, so I get to play,” Whiteside said. “You can’t get on the court without a contract. I called the Clippers for a workout, they said no. I called every team for a workout, they said no, except the Heat.
“The Heat gave me a chance and, I mean, it’s only right for me to give 110 percent effort every time.”
The Heat trailed the Clippers 19-8 when Whiteside checked into the game with 6:11 left in the first quarter. He immediately sparked an 8-0 run and it was at that point that the Heat started playing like a team that actually cared about this season without LeBron James.
The Heat outscored the Clippers by 26 points when Whiteside was on the court, and when the final horn sounded it felt like a season-defining performance for the Heat here in Los Angeles amid a difficult five-game trip.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra put his team through a punishing practice Saturday at Santa Monica High School after an embarrassing performance against the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday. Before Sunday’s game Spoelstra hinted toward an in-game change if the situation called for it.
“Overall, what we talked about was doing something different,” Spoelstra said. “Not just throw something against the wall, but what is something we can all do differently and bring more to this game and get us over the top and, fortunately, we were able to.”
With Whiteside occupying the Clippers’ interior defense, Bosh was free to focus on his offense, and he flourished. He tied a season-high with 34 points, going 13 of 20 from the field, 2 of 5 from three-point range and 6 of 7 from the free-throw line. He also had seven rebounds and two assists.
Bosh has scored at least 30 points in four games this season. His 17-foot jumper from the elbow gave the Heat a 95-83 lead with 4:48 left.
“I wanted to come out and be aggressive, and look for my shot,” Bosh said. “It was falling.”
Dwyane Wade finished with 17 points, 10 assists, four rebounds, a steal and just two turnovers. Griffin led the Clippers (25-13) with 26 points, and guard Chris Paul had 23 points and nine assists. The Heat out-rebounded the Clippers 46-27.
“I think for us it’s how can we continue to tap into this and not waste our time,” Bosh said. “We’ve had big wins against good teams and when we come to play we can do so much. I think we’re our own worst enemy. We have to continue to fight ourselves.”
▪ The Heat made plans to sign former camp invitee Tyler Johnson to a 10-day contract late Saturday night. Johnson, a shooting guard who signed with the Heat’s D-League affiliate after the preseason, could join the Heat as early as Monday in Los Angeles. The addition of Johnson will give the Heat 15 players, or the league maximum.